SYRACUSE, N.Y. — Among the faithful, nobody has to say they’re headed for the SEF 200 Presented by Ferris and Snapper or even Super DIRT Week. After 40 years as the No. 1 event in dirt modified racing, when you say you’re going to Syracuse, everyone knows what you’re talking about.
The Pro-Stocks, the Sportsman and the 358 Modifieds will also be on the weekend card at the New York State Fairgrounds mile, with satellite events featuring both the WoO Late Model and Sprint Car series run at the nearby Rolling Wheels Raceway, but to the vast majority, Sunday’s big-block modified classic is
“Syracuse.” Most go knowing that it will likely be a race decided by strategy and fuel mileage, not pure speed, but the same can be said of NASCAR’s much heralded Sprint Cup Chase for the Championship and numerous other late season “big races.”
Syracuse is a gathering of the clan, a testing of new ideas, a bit of a party for some and the place where a newcomer can make his mark in a big way, but only if he is fast, well prepared, lucky and able to handle weather conditions that can vary from boiling sun to snow flurries with monsoons in between. That’s why veterans usually win Syracuse.
For 2011, asphalt modified stars Chuck Hossfeld, Jimmy Blewett and Teddy Christopher will tackle the narrow, often dusty mile, with Christopher, who has left his comfort zone to win in everything from TQs to late models to supermodifieds over the years, drawing the most attention. Predictions on how he’ll do at Syracuse depend on who you ask.
“I think it’s cool that he’s going to try it,” offered Tim McCreadie, a major force in both the modifieds and the WoO LMs. “It takes time to get acclimated there but he’s a pro who’s good at big, sweeping tracks, which is what Syracuse is. Look at Erik Rudolph. He jumped in a Sportsman car a couple of years ago and buried everybody, even though he’d never run on dirt.
“Teddy is as good as they come but to me, the biggest thing is that he’s a big name from outside our part of the sport. That’s what we need to bring the race back to what it used to be, when Swindell and Kinser and guys like that ran in it along with the top modified guys.”
McCreadie, who has had a run of bad luck on the “Moody Mile,” has only finished the big block race once. He’ll be looking to put his name in the win column with his regular Sweeteners No. 39 and will run Vinnie Salerno’s car in the small-block race.
Billy Decker, who has graced victory lane many times following both the big-block and small-block races, offers a somewhat different perspective.
“Christopher is obviously a good racer who knows what he’s doing, so he should add a bit of excitement to the race,” offered Decker. “But it’s gonna be really different for him. You don’t want to get sideways there, which should help him a little, but you really need a team with lots of experience at Syracuse strategy.
“It’s a different kind of race, because going as fast as you can isn’t the answer. You have to keep the wheels on while you work on your strategy. Coming from deep in the field to the lead at Syracuse is a really tall order, so you have to get in at the right time and get out of the pits ahead of the other guys.
“But having a name like him run with us is good from a PR standpoint. It hurt our division when the two Tims — McCreadie and Fuller, moved on to run with the Outlaws most of the time. We need more big names, because in this sport, names carry a lot of weight at the front gate.”
Decker will again go to the post in his two proven Syracuse cars, racers that are put in the back of the shop each fall, tweaked a little when summer comes and put back on the mile until somebody proves they’re outmoded.
When it comes to Syracuse wins, Decker and Brett Hearn are the undisputed leaders, though mechanical ills have hurt both in recent years. Finishing 200 laps on the mile is not an easy task.
“I don’t know that much about Teddy,” said Hearn when asked whether having Christopher at Syracuse was a big deal. “But I do know that he’s pretty versatile. There’s nobody better qualified to jump into a strange car than him.
“Having him there should interest people who go to Oswego and other pavement fans around the northeast and add credibility to our biggest race. But what everyone has to remember is that Syracuse is not as much like pavement as it used to be. We only run here in October since the July Fourth and Labor Day shows went away. It used to have a lot more grip, but now it’s more like a regular dirt track.”
In a departure from past practice, Hearn will drive the “house car” from his brother Bobby’s extremely successful TEO shop, a car that he calls “new but not radical.”
“You can’t get radical like we used to, because the rules are too tight. It’s just a little more streamlined. The only things you can legally do now aren’t really practical, so it’s a product of evolution, not something revolutionary.”
The final contender we asked about Christopher’s Syracuse debut was Matt Sheppard, who has won both the race and the series championship in the past.
“It’s not a big deal. He’s just another Syracuse rookie,” declared Sheppard succinctly.
We’ll all have to go and watch TC in action to see just what kind of rookie he will turn out to be. And that’s what has made Syracuse so interesting for all these years. Pack a warm coat, or two, and we’ll see you there!